“Sakshi Malik ladegi aaj?” enquired Babul Nath Tomar, a frail 85-year-old man, at the War Heroes Memorial Stadium in Ambala. When told she wasn’t, he chanced, “Geeta-Babita?” With the star siblings not featuring either at the Bharat Kesari Dangal, the old man had a foot out of the door. It was only when he was informed that the younger Phogat sisters would fight the evening session, that Tomar shuffled off to the nearest vacant seat — not before a moment of indecision.
“Kushti dekhne main Dilli tak bhi chala jaata tha. Par ab nikalna nahi ho pata,” he would explain. “I’d come to the hospital to collect some reports. Thought will watch a bout or two on the way back.” Tomar wandered in for the wrestling, but stayed for the surnames.
Also present in the huge marquee were locals born and brought up on the dangal milieu, initially thrown off by the ‘gadde waali kushti’. Then there were those who were in just for the rumoured appearances from Aamir Khan and Baba Ramdev. Khan — with whom the word ‘dangal’ will now forever be synonymous — never showed up; Ramdev’s presence was limited to his brand of biscuits and energy drinks handed on the final day.
Any of them could have walked out. Instead, all of them stayed. An official doubling up as a master of ceremonies helped ensure that the marquee stayed packed to the rafters — with his humour as well as public service announcements. His timely pointers helped explain the rules of the game in words the dangal crowd, familiar with the ‘paintras’ but not the scoring system, could understand. Mat wrestling was trying its darnest to woo kushti’s connoisseurs — while the rustic dangal aligned itself into relevance with changed times — mud swapped for the mat.
Whatever little apprehension still remained gave way as soon as Haryana’s own Mausam Khatri walked in for his bout. A quick handshake and shrill of a blown whistle later, Khatri would close the distance and take a tight hold of opponent Mudassar Khan’s waist. With a subtle shift of his torso, Khatri took Khan to the ground, pinned him and walked off victorious. Khatri’s win, a dominant one at that, served the event well. The 26-year-old was a home favourite and an Asiad medallist. Chiefly though, he was the winner of last year’s ‘ek crore ka dangal.’
Awarded to one or divided in ten, the Rs 1 crore prize money remains the competition’s calling card. Street vendors to rickshaw-pullers want to know who made off with the grand prize. The umpteen hoardings and posters across Ambala feature the figure prominently while the fine print cuts the Rs 1 crore to size with the money to be distributed among winners of 10 categories this time.
Mausam Khatri ain’t amused. He’s sad competing in the same event for Rs 90 lakh less — though consensus remained that the new distribution made a lot more sense.
“Last year, the Wrestling Federation of India was involved only in technical conduct of the event,” says WFI general secretary VN Prasood. “I suggested organisers not give one heavyweight wrestler a crore when historically, India’s strong point was the lower-weight categories. For such a physically-demanding sport, wrestlers need all the help they can get.”
“Awarding such a sum to one person wasn’t right,” says Ritu Phogat, who won the 48kg category event. “Rs10 lakh is still a substantial amount for a wrestler.” To further sweeten the deal to attract missing stars such as Yogeshwar Dutt, Sakshi Malik, Satyavrat Kadian and the Phogat seniors, the prize money is doubled for next year.
The timing though needs no tweaking. Organised around the Shaheedi Divas — the martyrdom day for Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. Those in attendance are already buzzing with the kind of fervour only patriotism evokes. The sound system belting out a staple of patriotic numbers and cries of Vande Mataram and Bharat mata ki jai further draw the point home — this is as much a wrestling meet as a throbbing celebration of Bharatmata.
The Olympic celebrity
The event is further helped by a certain cult of personalities. The younger Phogat sisters walk in and are quickly made aware of their celebrity status. Hounded by cries of “Didi, didi”, the two are mobbed for selfies. Ritu, elder of the two, admits: “It’s not easy to get used to all this attention. People know of Geeta and Babita, and then realise we are Phogat sisters too.” Vinesh uses giant headphones as barrier but she too knows her value as a big draw. The 22-year-old, who admittedly is yet to watch Dangal, waves to chants of ‘Phogat, Phogat.’
Divya Kakran, who made her name competing with men in mud wrestling in UP villages for as little as Rs 30, walked off with a Rs 10 lakh cash prize in the 69+kg category. Though the 19-year-old admits that mud wrestling taught her a thing or two — including instincts of finishing a bout with a pin fall — she believes “matti ki pehchaan matti tak seemit hai.”
“The dangals fetched me little recognition and even less money. But the popularity of the mat is worldwide. People forget superb mud wrestlers. Nobody forgets an Olympic medal.”
Not many forgot KD Jadhav and India’s first wrestling medal — bronze at Helsinki in 1952. But for close to half a century, the sport stayed stuck in the mud. It wasn’t until Sushil Kumar won the 1998 World Cadet Games gold after training on the mats of Chhatrasal that Indian wrestling took off. And his bronze at Beijing ushered in a new era, leading to four medals in last three editions by wrestlers from Delhi and Haryana, a nod to the states’ focus on mat-based wrestling.
Many Haryana-based wrestlers won on the international stage. None from Ambala. The city is proud of its wrestling past — an early 60s exhibition bout saw Dara Singh lift and throw the 200kg ‘King Kong’ where state sports minister Anil Vij’s bungalow supposedly stands now — but has no present to boast of. The thrice-a-week dangal was reduced to a ‘jhande waali kushti’ on Sunday, and is only a fixture on festivals now.
The Bharat Kesari Dangal thus came at the right time. From the supplements store across the street to hotels booked weeks in advance, the travelling circus brought about a bump in business along with a spate of recognised faces.
But despite the presence of famous wrestlers, Olympians and The Great Khali himself, the biggest cheers remained reserved for Khattar and Vij, who also happens to be the MLA of Ambala Cantt and the driving force behind the shift of venue from Jhajjar to Ambala.
The organisers too milk it for all its worth by frequently showing the two on the big screens. At times, it overshadowed the wrestling. Like on the final day, when Khattar and his entourage marched across the mat during a bout’s intense final minute, sweeping up one of the coaches while postponing another bout on the adjacent mat.
There were other distractions, too. Before the closing bouts of the second day, singer Jasbir Jassi took to the elevated platform on which the two wrestling mats were placed and lingered for nearly half an hour. Feeling that he had overstayed his welcome, the organisers tried to force him off-stage. As a result, the casual fans, who had hoped to catch a glimpse of a Bollywood A-lister but were forced to make do with a 90s Indipop singer, started hurling seat covers and paper cups at the police personnel, who responded by threatening a lathi charge. When the dust settled and the crore was distributed, even the octogenarian Tomar slipped out with a smile.